Product Anti-patterns: Ignoring Right Users in Product Discovery

Photo of Krzysztof Bondar

Krzysztof Bondar

Updated Mar 1, 2024 • 15 min read
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When you conduct the product discovery process, neglecting user research can lead to an unsuccessful and unprofitable product. Below, we discuss how to spot and avoid that.

“No market need” is the second most common reason startups fail, and the obstacle that prevents you from entering the path to business growth.

why start-ups fail - reason list

Source: CB Insights

It doesn’t matter if you’re a product executive, a company CEO, or the founder of a booming startup. In the post-Covid inflation era where funds are less accessible, you have to be very cautious not only to build products right, but also to build mainly the right things.

User research is at the heart of the product development process. As Julie Zhou, ex-VP of Product Design at Facebook said:

“To find ideas, find problems. To find problems, talk to people”.

If you do the opposite, you may end up building a product that nobody wants, without a chance for growth and eventually (hopefully) profitability.

Luckily, if you spot common user research shortcomings early on in your product discovery work, you can still turn things around. By doing that, you find the sweet spot of feasibility, desirability, and viability, and create a successful product with market fit.

First signals that something’s off

When product managers don’t use the full potential of user research, it’s time to take action. Better safe than sorry, right? If you want to prevent your company or product development from going in the wrong direction, keep your eyes open for the following user research bad habits.

Product development “intuition”

You start to disregard user research and overly rely on your thoughts and beliefs because:

  • you’re using the product yourself
  • you feel like you know it best since you’re building it
  • the business/product/feature idea came from you

However, product “intuition” doesn’t have to be all bad. It can be fueled by your previous experience or industry expertise and used when there’s not enough evidence.

What you should watch out for is when intuition becomes the main source of product opportunities. The more unvalidated assumptions you make, the more product debt you’re creating that you’ll need to deal with in the future.

When making your next move, try to think about the evidence you have for the opportunity. Does it come from the market, users, or key stakeholders? Or maybe it’s just an idea of yours? Additionally, try to minimize the risk of delivering something your customers don’t want.

Relying on the feedback of heavy users

Every product aims to target specific personas or various market segments. What do they have in common?

Among them, you’ll find some people are significantly more engaged than others: heavy users. They know your existing product inside out, use it frequently, and often push it to the limit. Seems like the perfect person to talk to, right? Well, not exactly.

Let me give you an example from a product I built: a mobile app that lets you listen to audiobooks and read ebooks via a subscription model.

Heavy users were always speaking about extremes, like:

  • “I need this specific font; yours is unreadable.”
  • “Three times the speed of an audiobook is too slow; I need to make it five times faster than usual.”

Believe me, it’s fast.

Heavy users often have many insights during interviews, but they’re generally praising your product, asking for extraordinary features, or voicing strong opinions on certain subjects.

Don’t get me wrong: Their unique point of view could be of great use when you’re looking to challenge the status quo or pursue radical innovation. But keep in mind that often, they’re not representing the needs of the majority of your customer base.

Talking to users only through customer support

This is how it usually goes: On a weekly or monthly basis, the customer support (CS) team shares a list of users’ problems and requests with you. It’s usually prioritized according to how often the given topic was mentioned.

The customer feedback is right there waiting to be turned into deliverables. You could say there’s almost no need for deep dives, surveys, mom tests, jobs-to-be-done, usability testing, etc., right?

While I encourage you to use this feedback, I warn you against making it your sole source of customer voice. People getting in touch with CS are usually the ones with a specific problem or complaint. It can give you a valuable perspective on customer problems, but there are two caveats to keep in mind.

  • You don’t get the full context: The motivations, emotions, and feelings of a customer remain nameless, so you can’t really understand the goal or aspiration that ultimately led to the user feedback.
  • You receive the list of user problems, but disregard customers' unmet needs or desires, which you can use to drive innovation.

Leverage customer support as a source of user feedback, but explore other options to make sure you get a 360-degree angle of your customer. Otherwise, you’ll end up only scratching the surface, implementing half-measures, and not uncovering new product delivery opportunities.

Interacting with customers solely via interviews

“I’ve read Continuous Discovery, I’ve set up a weekly cadence of user interviews, but there’s still something I’m doing wrong.” Well, not exactly wrong, but you’re definitely missing out on the good stuff.

Customer interviews can get you through a lot – either challenging beginnings when you don’t have the scale or the right tracking in place, or when the market trajectory changes and you need to validate your new hypotheses. To put it simpler - you often don't have the resources or tech stack to run proper discovery.

It’s important to have those regular exploratory conversations, so you understand your customers better. However, I see them more as a “cherry on top of the customer insights cake”.

Buried in qualitative insights, don’t forget about the quantitative analysis that comes directly from product usage. There are certain answers you won’t find through customer interviews, but you’ll see emerging from datasets.

For example, how about old-fashioned competitive landscape or market trends analysis? As a product executive, you need to master those to understand the current and future landscape.

With all that in mind, build your next qualitative research hypotheses on top of data coming from multiple sources, ensuring you formulate the right questions for the right people.

Customer needs evolve and you stay stagnant

“In this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” Those words, supposedly said by Benjamin Franklin, sum things up pretty well.

It feels great to wrap up an amazing interview session after deeply empathizing with your target audience. Cherish that moment, be proud of your product discovery team, and turn insights into actionable hypotheses. But, never settle.

The worst thing you can do right now is assume that what you just discovered will be relevant in months, quarters, and years.

On the other hand, what you should assume is that with every major product improvement, customers needs reset at a new level. Constantly changing external factors like the market or competition landscape impact them heavily.

Who would have thought that the health and safety aspects of services would play such an important role in our lives? And then, there’s the acceleration of digitalization and the worldwide shift to online shopping channels.

Don’t settle, or you’ll miss that your customers’ needs are currently elsewhere, addressed by someone else.

What happens if the signals (and users) are ignored?

First and foremost, without customer touchpoints, you keep the uncertainty level unnecessarily high. As Teresa Torres said in her book Continuous Discovery:

“Our goal as a product team is not to seek truth but to mitigate risk.”

You live in a world of assumptions and sometimes you get it right. But most of the time, you lose hours and money discovering in practice what you could have validated with customers.

The less user research that takes place during the product discovery process stage and the product development process, the more biased, assumption-based product strategies and product roadmaps.

Moreover, your product team’s ability to uncover new opportunities will be significantly limited. From there, it’s a straight road to making late or simply wrong decisions. Your product roadmap backlog will be responsive to the market, instead of the product team creating and even disrupting it.

Without customer touchpoints, you’ll be buried in everyday incremental improvements with smaller chances of uncovering opportunities that could elevate your product in the long run.

If you’re not addressing user problems or making an impact, think about how that affects your product team and its motivation to contribute.

Maria Smorawińska, Netguru Product Manager, highlights what happens in another product anti-pattern article about misalignment in the team: You can expect low spirit, confusion about priorities, and cross-functional team dissatisfaction (here you’ll find more on product anti-patterns).

Last but not least, you may end up building products for narrow focus groups of people, such as heavy users or people reaching out to customer support.

As Marty Cagan described in his bestseller Inspired: Business and value risks skyrocket, simply because no customers want to buy or choose to use a product like that. You end up building something nobody wants, with no chance for financial gain.

What to do when the anti-pattern happens

During company or product team-level discussions, if you notice words like “customer”, “user”, or “persona” are replaced by “stakeholders”, “business goals” or “I know what they want”, you need to step in.

Define and (re)align people around key persona(s)

Identify who represents your target audience. We’re only humans: Sometimes we neglect to identify who represents the target audience or actual customers. Instead, we tend to jump into what’s known and easier, like an initiative request from a stakeholder.

If you haven’t already, define your personas and spread awareness, making everybody understand who you’re creating the product for – real people with pain points, needs, and desires.

Start talking to your customers or potential target focus groups

This point is a bit oversimplified, but definitely a good starting point. You don’t need a Master's degree in Research to understand who your conversation partner is and what their main pain points or desires are.

Later on, you may want to enhance your product development team with someone who helps recruit the right customer, formulates valid market research questions, and synthesizes the findings into a digestible form.

Make a shared habit of discovery within product teams

Start slowly, by having sessions dedicated to certain user problems or features validation, and then move to exploratory and continuous interviewing.

Remember: You don’t want to be a gatekeeper to customers' knowledge. Involve engineers and other departments to help them empathize with real people and their problems, ensuring continuous product discovery.

Investigate your product analytics implementation

By doing that, you uncover what user data is already available. Make sure you visualize it properly and grant easy access to everyone in need of the customer’s perspective.

Start with general demographics, and through behavioral analysis of the main funnel, move on to more detailed data points to build your customer profile.

Best practices to prevent product discovery anti-patterns

During Lenny Rachitsky’s podcast, Marty Cagan said that as a product manager, you need to master four areas:

  • User and customer
  • Data
  • Business understanding
  • Competitive landscape

Never let one lead another, and ensure balance so you make informed decisions. The product is never truly impacted solely by one of these areas. Make your team better at user research, but don’t let this distract you from other aspects of the product development journey.

Customer perspective

With every product document you work on, make sure you include the customer’s perspective. This can be a problem statement based on a specific round of customer interviews, or a verbatim or quantitative behavioral data point.

For my personal documents, I like to add a “Source” section to highlight where this idea or hypothesis came from. It helps me understand how much of my product opportunities are based on the customer’s input.

Research culture

Lack of user research often happens due to an absence of a company-wide understanding of its purpose and benefits.

It’s crucial to start building a research culture within organizations.

No matter if it’s a bi-weekly email or a quarterly planning meeting, communicate what you want to discover and why, and follow this up by sharing research results and next steps.

Not every piece of research will be successful. Make sure you celebrate the wins, but also appreciate the lost battles. Learn from every attempt and build a safe environment for people to try out new tools or techniques.

As customers change over time, so should you. Empower your product development team to analyze and adapt to new circumstances.

Right talent

Get the right product management talent on board to streamline the adoption of a user-centered approach. Superb Product Analysts or Researchers help put you on a path to a product’s success.

Their dedication to uncovering qualitative and quantitative insights contributes to the research culture, bringing you a full palette of opportunities. And they also make your life much easier.

Importance of user research during product discovery activities

User research goes way beyond talking to customers. Get it right and you empower your team to create beautiful, impactful, and successful products that deliver business value and strategic goals.

Do it wrong or skip it altogether and end up in the dark, wondering why your product discovery efforts aren’t going the way they’re supposed to. Customers are floating away, you’re not achieving product market fit, key stakeholders see you as a feature factory, and your team is wondering why the product exists in the first place.

Head to our product management services page for information on how we can help you maximize the chance of your product’s success.

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Krzysztof Bondar

Krzysztof Bondar works as a Product Manager at Netguru.
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